How to run a democracy that’s blissfully unaware of its high mediocre standards

In a young evolving democracy like Trinidad and Tobago where standards are a moving target, some leeway is sometimes necessary to move the complex process forward.
Take the most regretful example of July 27, 1990 when a Muslim radical cleric and his fellow terrorists stormed the country’s Parliament, murdered a sitting member and held the Cabinet to ransom before offering to sign an Amnesty guaranteeing their freedom – which was granted.

Then there was the event of 1971 when the People’s National Movement (PNM) won all the Parliamentary seats in general elections and Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams – a true democrat at heart – was faced with the dilemma of running a country without an Opposition.
No problem, the wily “Doc” must have quickly thought as he flipped the problem around in his mind. In a short time, a previously nondescript member on the government side defected and was sworn in as Leader of the Opposition.

In short order, Selwyn Charles from the rural constituency of Siparia named Selwyn Charles followed suit and joined Point Fortin Representative George Richardson to form a two-man Opposition which functioned very well for the full term.
One of the more memorable moments of this process was the quotation attributed to Charles who ruefully said “I love you sir but…”
During his term in office, Richardson called a number of news conferences and, to all apparent intents and purposes, performed his role to the hilt.
This was most likely very pleasing to his “former” boss who ran he government smoothly and without any major problem in the House for the next five years.

In terms of shaping the democracy therefore, the important historical markers may be more likely identified in the effectiveness with which a nation wraps its head around the unexpected problems it is faced with – rather than the predictable situations encountered as par for the course.
Which may be the reasoning behind the statement by Prime Minister Williams at the ceremony to declare Trinidad and Tobago an Independent nation on August 31, 1962 when he said:

“Your Parliament has been inaugurated by Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, the representative of Her Majesty the Queen. You have your own Governor General and your own Chief Justice, both appointed on the advice of your own Prime Minister. You have your own National Guard, however small.

You are now a member of the Commonwealth Family in your own right, equal in status to any other of its members. You hope soon to be a member of the World Family of Nations, playing your part, however insignificant, in world affairs. You are on your own in a big world, in which you are one of many nations, some small, some medium size, some large. You are nobody’s boss and nobody is your boss.

What use will you make of your independence? What will you transmit to your children five years from today?

The Trinidad and Tobago government team that was led by Williams to London for our Independence talks included Opposition Leader Dr Rudranath Capildeo, a world-respected mathematician.

Pointing out that “other countries ceased to exist in that period”, Williams warned that some, in much less time, had become “totally disorganize, a prey to anarchy and civil war”.

Against such a background therefore, there’s no gainsaying that “Sweet T+T” has done quite well for herself among the nations of the so-called “First World”.
On the economic front, we have set an example of the great things which a small nation can do with the prudent use of income from our of oil and gas fields.
We were once the world’s largest exporter of ammonia, and our gas-based petrochemical complex at Pt Lisas still stands as testimony to our people’s adherence to both wise energy policy and management.

Listen to Williams on our first Independence day:

“The first responsibility that devolves upon you is the protection and promotion of your democracy. Democracy means more, much more, than the right to vote and one vote for every man and every woman of the prescribed age. Democracy means recognition of the rights of others.
Democracy means equality of opportunity for all in education, in the public service, and in private employment–I repeat, and in private employment. Democracy means the protection of the weak against the strong.”

And herein lies the painful rub as the shell-shocked people of a country celebrating its 59th year of independence and 45th year as a democratic republic, watched in awe at the political circus that is unfolding on the landscape with the main clowns being

  • the commissioner of police,
  • the Police Service Commission
  • a toothless barking Prime Minister’s bull dog in the form of a newly-appointed national security minister,
  • a media caught up in a feeding frenzy, and
    *a President who many say “does not know what to do”

It is this obviously raw abuse of the sacred democracy entrusted to us to ensure a wholesome future that is most disturbing in that – suggestive of a mind-set which is as blissful as the first name of the PSC Chairman – these key players do not even seem conscious of the dangerous destructive path which their antics and histrionics can take us down.

Few people now remember how Grenadians woke up one morning to find their country overtaken in March, 1979 by a group called the New Jewel Movement which comprised of a few young students and intellectuals who used to visit Trinidad regularly to plead their cause for a change in leadership from the eccentric Eric Gairy.

In a short time after that, peace-loving citizens of the Spice Isle found themselves enveloped in a draconian communist satellite state which eventually led to the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and the invasion by US forces to fill the power vacuum to ostensibly rescue its citizens but to really bring back grateful Grenada into the democratic fold.

With an example like that right on our door step, one would have that that reason would prevail. Instead, what seemed like a routine matter involving the appointment of a Commissioner of police has been dragged like a Good Friday “Bobolee” from Court to Court; from News Conference to Leaks; from Resignations to long and short term leave approvals; and from threats to resign to accusations of conspiracy plots.

This is certainly not the kind of show that our people wants the world to see us putting on as our Energy Minister Stuart Young quietly conducts sensitive negotiations for new energy prices with the ever-watchful and touchy transnationals who will grab at every weakness they can spot.
Nor will our worried Prime Minster be happy as we seek to gently ease ourselves out of the quiet grip which Venezuela’s Nikolas Maduro had us in with his oil war against the USA fueled, of course, by our kind Opposition Leader.

Since the fracas seemed to have taken a turn with some measure of sanity over the Republic Day holiday week-end, we’ve been blessed with a time to exhale and regather our forces to recover the resilience and calm which marks us as a people who can deal with the worst and emerge as our best.

As we do so now, in his significant anniversary of independence and republicanism, it would surely comfort Williams and all our past leaders to see us stand up and be counted in a land where the institution is bigger than any man or woman and where we are today proud to recall Williams once again when he said on that most meaningful First Anniversary of Independence:

Our National Flag belongs to all our citizens. Our National Coat of Arms, with our National Birds inscribed therein, is the sacred trust of our citizens.
So it is today, please, I urge you, let it always be so. Let us always be able to say, with the Psalmist, behold, how good, and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.

With this in mind, we can also take solace in the patriotic stand taken by the individual who, on the face of it, stands to lose the most in the resolution of this matter, namely Gary Griffith.
If we can take him at his word in his Facebook post on Republic day (September 24), then we can all hope for a win-win situation as our small nation marches through the various pitfalls and blunders, from success to success.

In this regard, we take careful note of what Griffith said:

“I have no fight with neither the Government nor any Independent institution in the country. My position is actually quite simple. What is best for Trinidad and Tobago is what I support.”

Well said, Gary. It’s now time for all of us to move on together as one!

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